Sun | Nov 17, 2019

Former child soldiers struggle to move on

Published:Wednesday | October 23, 2019 | 12:21 AM
In this photo taken on Tuesday Feb.12, 2019, former child soldiers walk home after receiving materials and supplies during a child soldier release in Yambio, South Sudan. An estimated 19,000 child soldiers are in South Sudan, one of the highest rates in the world, according to the United Nations. As the country emerges from civil war, some worry the fighting could re-ignite if former child soldiers aren't properly reintegrated into society.

YAMBIO, South Sudan (AP):

When he escaped the armed group that had abducted him at the age of 15, the child soldier swore he’d never go back. But the South Sudanese teen still thinks about returning to the bush, six months after the United Nations (UN) secured his release.

“Being asked to kill someone is the hardest thing,” he told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity for his safety.

And yet the army offered him a kind of stability he has yet to find outside it. “I had everything, bedding and clothes, I’d just steal what I needed ... here, I haven’t received what I was expecting,” he said.

He lives with family, adrift, waiting to attend a UN-sponsored job skills programme, struggling to forget his past.

There are an estimated 19,000 child soldiers in South Sudan, one of the highest rates in the world, according to the UN. As the country emerges from a five-year civil war that killed almost 400,000 people and displaced millions, some worry the fighting could reignite if former child soldiers aren’t properly reintegrated into society.

“Without more support, the consequence is that the children will move towards the barracks where there’s social connection, food and something to do,” said William Deng Deng, chairman for South Sudan’s national disarmament demobilisation and reintegration commission. “They loot and raid and it will begin to create insecurity.”

Since the fighting broke out in 2013, the UN children’s agency has facilitated the release of more than 3,200 child soldiers from both government and opposition forces.

Yet even after a peace deal was signed a year ago, the rate of forced child soldier recruitment by both sides in the conflict is increasing, the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan said in a statement earlier this month.

“Ironically, the prospect of a peace deal has accelerated the forced recruitment of children, with various groups now seeking to boost their numbers before they move into the cantonment sites,” said commission chairwoman Yasmin Sooka. According to the peace deal, the government and opposition should have 41,500 troops trained and unified into one national army.

Children who leave armed groups often struggle to adjust.

The AP followed several child soldiers among 121 released in February. Many said they are still haunted by their pasts, unable to talk about their experiences for fear of being stigmatized and often incapable of controlling their anger.

“Whenever I think about the bush, even if I’m playing football, I feel like stopping and picking something up and hitting my friends,” said a 13-year-old. The AP is not using the names of the former child soldiers to protect their identities.

Abducted by armed men when he was 11, he worked as a spy for an opposition group and at times was forced to witness and partake in horrific acts. He watched a soldier kill a child for refusing to do his chores, and he was forced to set a house on fire, burning alive everyone inside.

“I hear those people screaming in my dreams,” he said.